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Monday, October 13

Same letter praising Army in Iraq pops up across nation

By Ledyard King | GNS

WASHINGTON - Letters from hometown soldiers describing their successes rebuilding Iraq have been appearing in newspapers across the country as U.S. public opinion on the mission sours.

And all the letters are the same.

A Gannett News Service search found identical letters from different soldiers with the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Airborne Infantry Regiment, also known as "The Rock," in 11 newspapers.

The five-paragraph form letter talks about the soldiers' efforts to re-establish police and fire departments and build water and sewer plants in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk where the unit is based.

``The quality of life and security for the citizens has been largely restored, and we are a large part of why that has happened,'' the letter reads.

It describes people waving at passing troops and children running up to shake their hands and say thank you.

"The majority of the city has welcomed our presence with open arms," the letter reads.

It's not clear who wrote the letter or organized sending it to soldiers' hometown papers.

Six soldiers reached by GNS directly or through their families said they agreed with the letter's thrust. But none of the soldiers said he wrote it, and one said he didn't even sign it. A seventh soldier didn't know about the letter until his father congratulated him for getting it published in the local newspaper in Beckley, W.Va.

``When I told him he wrote such a good letter, he said: `What letter?''' Timothy Deaconson said Friday, recalling the phone conversation he had with his son, Nick. ``This is just not his (writing) style.''

He spoke to his son, Pfc. Nick Deaconson, at a hospital where he was recovering from a grenade explosion that left shrapnel in both his legs.

Sgt. Christopher Shelton, who signed a letter that ran in the Snohomish, Wash., paper, said Friday that his platoon sergeant had distributed the letter and asked soldiers for the names of their hometown newspapers. Soldiers were asked to sign the letter if they agreed with it, said Shelton, whose shoulder was wounded during an ambush earlier this year.

``Everything it said is dead accurate. We've done a really good job,'' he said by phone from Italy where he was preparing to return to Iraq.

Sgt. Todd Oliver, a spokesman for the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which counts the 503rd as one of its units, said he was told a soldier wrote the letter, but he didn't know who. He said the brigade's public affairs unit was not involved.

``When he asked other soldiers in his unit to sign it they did,'' Oliver explained in an e-mail response to a GNS inquiry. ``Someone, somewhere along the way, took it upon themselves to mail it to the various editors of newspapers across the country.''

Lt. Col. Bill MacDonald, a spokesman for the 4th infantry Division that is heading operations in north-central Iraq, said he had not heard about the letter-writing campaign.

Neither had Lt. Cmdr. Nick Balice, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla.

A recent poll suggests that Americans are increasingly skeptical of America's prolonged involvement in Iraq. A USA TODAY-CNN-Gallup Poll released Sept. 23 found only 50 percent believe that the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over, down from 73 percent in April.

Critics have focused on the cost of the Iraq war and President Bush's recent request for $87 billion for continued military operations and rebuilding. Bush and his top aides this week began vigorously defending operations in Iraq in speeches across the United States.

The letter talks about the soldiers' mission, saying, ``one thousand of my fellow soldiers and I parachuted from ten jumbo jets.'' It describes Kirkuk as ``a hot and dusty city of just over a million people.'' It tells about the progress they have made.

``The fruits of all our soldiers' efforts are clearly visible in the streets of Kirkuk today. There is very little trash in the streets, many more people in the markets and shops, and children have returned to school,'' the letter reads.

"I am proud of the work we are doing here in Iraq and I hope all of your readers are as well."

The letter or excerpts from it also ran last month in newspapers in: Charleston, W.Va.; Utica, N.Y.; Boston; Jersey City, N.J.; Moriarty, N.M.; Connellsville, Pa.; Lewistown, Mont.; Urbanna, Va.; and Tulare, Calif.

The Olympian in Olympia, Wash., received two identical letters signed by different soldiers. The paper declined to run either because of a policy not to publish form letters.

Sgt. Shawn Grueser of Poca, W.Va., said he spoke to a military public affairs officer whose name he couldn't remember about his accomplishments in Iraq for what he thought was a news release to be sent to his hometown paper in Charleston, W.Va. But the 2nd Battalion soldier said he did not sign any letter.

Although Grueser said he agrees with the letter's sentiments, he was uncomfortable that a letter with his signature did not contain his own words or spell out his own accomplishments.

``It makes it look like you cheated on a test, and everybody got the same grade,'' Grueser said by phone from a base in Italy where he had just arrived from Iraq.

Amy Connell, mother of Pfc. Adam Connell, said her 20-year-old son signed the letter because he wants the public to know that much is being accomplished despite media reports that focus on bombings and unrest.

``They wanted people to get the other perspective of the good that is coming out of there,'' said Amy Connell, of Sharon, Mass. ``He is happy helping out there.''

Keli Marshall, who forwarded the letter from her son, Pfc. Jason Marshall, to the Moriarty, N.M., paper, said she agreed with the soldiers that the news of their good deeds is not getting out.

``We have a press that reports on what goes on in Baghdad, and they're not looking at what's going on in the rest of the country,'' she said. ``I was happy to read that letter. The reporting has not been balanced at all.''

Timothy Deaconson, a former lieutenant colonel in the 173rd, agrees with the letter's message. But he worries that the tactic of a form letter might backfire on his son Nick and others who signed it.

``It seems to me this is a well-intended gesture to tell the other side of the story, one that the media may not be gleaning because it's happening on a small scale every day,'' he said. But ``if the average person found that Nick didn't write the letter, it might take a little something away from it.''